Prawn Againby Andy Davis / 20.08.2009
When you finally get to see District 9 next week, the thing you need to keep in mind is that when it was released in the US it knocked GI Joe off the top of the box office. On the same weekend it smoked the Eric Bana vehicle Time Traveler’s Wife and the new Jeremy Piven flick The Goods and relegated Disney’s Japanese animation Ponyo and the Vanessa Hudgens vehicle Bandslam into 5th and 6th place respectively. D-9 made 37.5 million dollars in it’s opening weekend. And it cost 30 million to make. Not bad for a boytjie from Jozi and a fat Kiwi, huh? Kicking ass and taking numbers in tinseltown. I think we can finally declare that South African film has arrived as little more than a blip on Hollywood’s radar. But more than any of these chest thumping moments of national zeal and bald jingoism, the thing that impressed me most is that Neill Blomkamp has managed to do it with a film that is totally South African. There are no seppos (a term taken from the Cockney rhyming slang septic tank, yank) mangling our accent. There’s no Taye Diggs pretending to be black. We’ve got a hero based on the sheltered employment postal clerk you’ll remember from growing up in the 1980s. Sharlto Copley has played the archetype of all Van Der Merwe jokes as the protagonist in a Hollywood sci-fi action flick. And it works. I cried tears of pride in my popcorn.
And let’s also take into account that Johannesburg, with all it’s dusty bitterness and hope mixed up together; it’s rough edges, brute materialism and gritty heart, is a fantastic backdrop for a big, fast paced, adrenal-squeezing action-packed sci-fi flick. I mean living in South Africa is a kind of surreal sci-fi experience most of the time anyway.
And Joburg, the black, beating heart of South Africa is also a poignant place to set a story so dripping in meaning and symbolism. For well over 400 years the vast majority of human beings have treated each other like shit here. And why would we treat aliens, who look like biped prawns, any differently? That’s what’s so realistic about D-9. If aliens were to arrive and let’s pretend they didn’t totally fuck us up with their advanced weaponry and take our planet, and let’s pretend we managed to dominate them, well the scenario that District 9 creates is pretty spot on. We’d stick them in a camp, fence them off, fuck them up, experiment on them and totally misunderstand them, on purpose. Hell we wouldn’t even try. And on this level D-9 makes it’s most salient points. Because you could so easily swap out the “prawn” for any number of Malawians, Congolese and Zimbabwean African diasporic economic refugees – especially in light of our recent history of disgraceful xenophobic violence.
So it’s not just the fact that it’s a nut-grabbing action flick with amazing special effects, funny in-jokes, a rich vein of black humour and an undercurrent of meaning as thick and swelling as the Zambezi… But more than any of that, what impresses me most about District 9 is that the Americans have jumped on the bandwagon and supported this film. They’ve enjoyed it. So in one fell swoop Blomkamp has fucked in the eye anyone who has ever told us that we need Americans to play the major South African roles in Hollywood flicks – for commercial reasons. You are the impimpi of our culture, you dogs. The vast majority of movies that have tried that have tanked. D-9 proves that the Seppos are not such dumb hicks, that they can understand our accents and relate to our stories. We don’t have to dumb-down and creatively compromise our culture for broader global appeal. In fact we’d do better to keep it real. There is no catch 22. That was a myth. Neill Blomkamp take a bow, standing on the shoulders of Tsotsi, you’ve officially blown the glass ceiling. A golden age of South African film should now follow.